July is National Ice Cream Month! Celebrate Globally!

The story began here:

Every August, as a routinely flushed, overheated child, I would join in chorus with my perspiring cohorts, boisterously importuning, “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!” Little did I realize that rather than conjuring dessert, I was conjugating it and probably laying the groundwork for a lifetime of fascination with foreign languages and world food.

We lived in close proximity to one of the best dairies in town; it was known for its wide assortment of locally produced natural flavors, certainly sufficient in number and variety to satisfy any palate. Perhaps my obsession with offbeat ice cream flavors is rooted in my frustration with my father’s return home from work, invariably bearing the same kind of ice cream as the last time, Neapolitan. Neapolitan, again. My pleas to try a different flavor – just once? please? – consistently fell on deaf ears. “Neapolitan is chocolate, strawberry and vanilla. That’s three flavors right there. If you don’t want it, don’t eat it.” Some kids’ idea of rebellion involved smoking behind the garage; mine was to tuck into a bowl of Rum Raisin….

There’s lots more to the story, of course. Click here to get the full scoop! 🍨
 
 

Tulcingo Restaurant

Part of what I’m calling the “Golden Oldies” series: photos I had posted on Instagram in bygone days that surely belong here as well, from restaurants that are still doing business, still relevant, and still worth a trip.

In a recent post I noted that there are seemingly dozens of restaurants along the Latin American strip on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park and no, I’m not going to try to eat my way through all of them. But back in April, 2017, we visited one of the neighborhood’s better known eateries and it did not disappoint. Tulcingo, at 5520 5th Ave, offers an extensive menu and we barely scratched the surface. Here are a few photos:

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Birria (it’s a two syllable word) hails from the Mexican state of Jalisco. I don’t recall if this dish was as trendy then as it is now, but I do recall that Tulcingo’s rendering was a tasty one. It’s essentially a meat stew, customarily made with goat although this version is Birria de Res so beef is the star of the show. Birria distinguishes itself from similar recipes in that the meat is marinated in savory adobo before it goes into the stew pot – and you can taste the difference.


And while we’re on the subject of beef, these are Tacos de Lengua, tongue for the uninitiated – so tender that I was about to describe it as meat that melts in your mouth but I thought the better of it. Delicious.


Shifting the focus from head to toe, or more specifically from mouth to limb, this is Pierna Adobada, pork leg, marinated and roasted to perfection.


Plato Barbacoa de Chivo. If you’ve never tried goat before, this is a good way to do it because you don’t have to wrestle with extricating bits of meat from a carcass – no bones about it. Barbacoa is marinated and traditionally steamed in a pit which guarantees juicy results although other methods of preparation can be just as successful; it’s pulled and shredded for serving.


Rice and beans to stave off teasing about how meat-heavy our dinner had been!
 
 
Tulcingo is located at 5520 5th Ave in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
 
 

Cremature Judgment

The stretch of 5th Avenue between about 38th and 59th Streets in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park is a mecca for Mexican, Central and South American food (at the risk of mixing my geographic meccaphors).

My plan had been to do a definitive roundup of the varieties of crema to be found there but as Robert Burns wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley.” Each time I set about composing the post, some new question popped up that warranted an investigation and prompted another trip back to Sunset Park: I had to stop somewhere even if I hadn’t evaluated everything there was to evaluate. So rather than an exhaustive report (because it would be exhausting to write and even more so to read), I offer these tasting notes perhaps prematurely.

I’m going to assume that you are already familiar with crema and when you run across a Mexican recipe on the interwebs that calls for sour cream, you raise an eyebrow, question its authenticity, and wonder if the result will taste pretty much like the real deal, particularly if the next ingredient is Velveeta.

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Any well-stocked supermarket around these parts is likely to have a least one brand of crema, usually Mexican style and often Tropical brand. Note that Tropical refers to its product as “cultured sour cream”; I don’t know if that’s an actual distinction or just a clarification for the American marketplace. If you see it, try it; in the vernacular of cybershorthand, IMHO any crema > any sour cream. But if you want to take a deeper dive, and you should, it’s easy to find Quesos La Ricura brand and others in Latin American neighborhoods.

The difference between these two brands of Crema Mexicana is both significant and subjective: for starters, Tropical is saltier. Regarding texture: I could be wrong but I find a lot of dairy products (including yogurt) seem to have upped the ante these days on guar gum content; it’s a stabilizing and thickening agent made from guar beans and imparts a viscous, not quite sticky quality to whatever it “enriches” but doesn’t affect the flavor. (Note that all of the brands I sampled for this post use gums of one kind or another. So does your favorite ice cream.) In this case, Tropical is thicker but gummier and, based on my experience, enjoys a longer shelf life than Quesos La Ricura, enough to make me speculate about the fingerprint of higher guar gum content. Tasted good though.


But Mexican crema only begins to plumb the depths; here are examples of Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan cremas as well to champion their own rendition of this (literally) crowning achievement, each proudly displaying its flag and crowing “para el gusto de nuestros pueblos”. Gotta love it.

The nutritional info on the back of the jars as well as the ingredients listed on the front are identical; the color variations run from Honduran ivory though Guatemalan then Salvadoran and finally to Mexican snow-white.

Texture notes: Mexican and Honduran were the thinnest. Guatemalan is the heaviest, more like a hybrid of sour cream and crème fraîche.

Flavor notes: Among the four, Salvadoran was rich, salt level just right, and a little sweet (my fave if you must know); Mexican was saltiest; Honduran was salty and a little more acidic, perhaps with barely a hint of cheesiness; and Guatemalan was less tart/tangy than the others. In general, the Central American versions were a bit nuttier and richer than their Mexican counterparts.

But bear in mind that these are fine grades of distinction; YMMV based on your own personal taste and the age of the product. Age of the product? Read on….

Now, originally I thought that Guatemalan had a slight cheesy funkiness to it – but was it “on the edge”? So I went back to Sunset Park (one example of what I meant by new wrinkles hindering me from finishing this post) and bought another jar of the same brand (the one evaluated but not photographed here). Curiously, this time it was in a shorter jar like the others and topped with a white cap. Was the first one past its prime? I used it well before its sell-by date. I’ve decided that those dates should be taken with a grain of salt (ahem); technically, these all still have a month to go but I know there’s no way they’re all going to survive that long. Is it this particular brand or the store’s handling of it? We’ll never know. But don’t let that deter you: get one with a distant sell-by date and you’ll most likely be fine.

Also be aware that the variations from brand to brand are almost more important than their national styles. But in general, cremas are all richer and runnier than sour cream and that’s really what you’re after, especially if you’re not doing an OCD A/B comparison.

And I won’t even begin to talk about the commercial products that come in plastic bags, or even better, unlabeled plastic bags in the dairy case – that’s the housemade stuff and usually worth getting.

But now, a problem has emerged: What am I supposed to do with all this crema in the fridge? Expect to see some home cooking where I’ve swapped it in for sour cream, yogurt, crème fraîche or even buttermilk.
 
 
But if you see me putting it in my coffee…send help.
 
 

Cinco de Mayo – 2021

Since it’s Cinco de Mayo, I found myself musing about some of the Mexican dishes I’ve cobbled together over the past year or so of quarantining and hyper-conscientiousness. I’m hopeful that my 👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳 series will be drawing to a close soon – but for just a little while longer, I’m still proceeding con cuidado.

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Chicken Mole. Shredded chicken, sautéed onions and the like combined with a packet of Mole Rojo Oaxaqueño (took the easy way out that time) topped with some crema Mexicana. (BTW, stay tuned for a post about the subtle differences among commercially available Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran cremas.) In the back, rice cooked in chicken broth along with onion, garlic, red bell pepper and achiote for color; freshly grated cotija cheese sprinkled on top. On the side, black beans, corn, and jalapeños with red pepper, onion, garlic and spices including Mexican oregano and Tajín.

And what did I do with the leftovers?

¡Las quesadillas estaban deliciosas!

For a side dish, I made esquites, the Mexican street food favorite: grilled corn with garlic, jalapeños, scallions, cilantro, crema and lime juice topped with crumbled cotija cheese and Tajín.


On another occasion, I was jonesing for fish tacos and it wasn’t even the officially sanctioned el martes. Besides, it gave me an excuse to break out the comal and make salsa cruda. There’s nothing auténtico about these, but they were a cinch to prepare. Pan seared fish, cut into chunks and set into a taco shell along with avocado, shredded lettuce, shredded cheese, and a bit of crema, all awaiting some homemade salsa to do the heavy flavor lifting.


The salsa cruda started by charring white onion, tomatillos, tomato, and jalapeño on a comal – shown here mid-blister. Added rehydrated dried ancho and chipotle chilies, cilantro, garlic, lime juice, olive oil, salt, and a pinch of cumin and Mexican oregano. I chopped it all by hand because a blender or food processor creates a thin salsa which is fine but I prefer some crunch.


The finished product. And last but not least…


…guacamole!
 
 
¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo!
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Cosa de Boniato y Chorizo

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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That’s not its real name, of course, but I haven’t come up with a proper one for it yet and I didn’t want to call the post “Untitled” because this serendipitous culinary invention may well be one of the best dishes I have ever concocted. Why serendipitous? Here’s how it came about:

I was playing Socially Distanced Produce Aisle Roulette; that’s where you stand six feet away from the person who got to the vegetable counter first and cool your heels as they pick over each Brussels sprout to select the winning candidates for their dinner. Truthfully, I don’t mind playing this game because I know that it will be my turn soon enough and it gives me time to peruse the landscape for veggies that had not originally made it onto my shopping list.

To its credit, my white-bread supermarket actually does carry some Latin American vegetables if you know where to look. They’re stocked at eye level – if you’re a Chihuahua. Check out the floor-level bins beneath the bananas and you’ll see the platanos. Look under the sweet potatoes and lo and behold you’ll find the boniatos. Appearances notwithstanding, these marvelous tubers aren’t yams and are only remotely related to potatoes (same taxonomic order, Solanales) – and in some respects they’re better than either. They’re a little on the dry side, quite sweet, and taste more like chestnuts than any other starchy veg that purports to taste like chestnuts. Cook ’em the same way you’d cook potatoes.

Anyway, as I patiently waited for an opening, I began to mull over what I might whip up using a boniato. For some reason, my bespoke recipe for potato salad came to mind, but with Mexican overtones. But please note: this was not destined to be “Mexican Potato Salad”. First off, the whole idea of that sounds coy, gimmicky, and likely to disappoint; secondly, I was envisioning a dish served warm, unctuous, and as a main course, not a side.

Nonetheless, I decided that a swap-in for each ingredient in my recipe would be a worthwhile idea, so here’s what I did: boniato for potatoes, Mexican chorizo for bacon, poblano pepper for red bell pepper, chopped white onion (very Mexican) for sweet Vidalia onion, cilantro for parsley, cambray onion (scallions would work, too) for celery (the crunchy contingent), and a garlicky, lemony aioli for the balsamic-vinegary, honey-mustardy mayonnaise that holds it all together – literally matching up ingredient for ingredient, but in different proportions of course.

As I said, in my humble opinion, it was amazing: sweet from the boniato, spicy from the chorizo, tangy from the aioli, yielding yet crunchy, lavish yet homespun, and incredibly delicious beyond even my most unbridled fantasies. Of course, the real test will be to make it again and see if I’m still blown away by it. Hey, I might even write down ingredient quantities next time! 😉
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

A Passover Dare

(Originally posted on April 20, 2019, in better times.)

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Previously on ethnojunkie.com, I did a springtime post that included a story about someone who dared me to come up with an ethnic fusion Passover menu. I wrote:

Well, far be it from me to dodge a culinary challenge! So although obviously inauthentic, but certainly fun and yummy, here’s to a Sazón Pesach!

Picante Gefilte Pescado
Masa Ball Posole
Brisket Mole
Poblano Potato Kugel
Maple Chipotle Carrot Tzimmes
Guacamole spiked with Horseradish
Charoset with Pepitas and Tamarindo

And, of course, the ever popular Manischewitz Sangria!

It was all in good fun, of course, but it got me thinking about actually creating a Jewish-Mexican fusion recipe. It isn’t strictly Kosher for Passover, but I thought the concept was worth a try. So here is my latest crack at cross cultural cooking: Masa Brei!

Now you might know that Matzo Brei (literally “fried matzo”) is a truly tasty dish consisting of matzos broken into pieces that are soaked briefly in warm milk (some folks use water), drained, soaked in beaten eggs until soft, then fried in copious quantities of butter. Typically served with sour cream and applesauce, it’s heimische cooking, Jewish soul food, at its finest and it’s easy to do.

So I thought it might be worth a try to swap out the matzos for tostadas, the milk for horchata, the sour cream for crema, and the applesauce for homemade pineapple-jalapeño salsa. A sprinkle of tajín, a scatter of chopped cilantro – and it actually worked!

Happy Passover!
!חג פסח שמח
 
 

Guacamolcajete (Not)

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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Since I mentioned using a molcajete in my last post, here’s a bit more information as promised. The molcajete is Mexico’s version of a mortar and pestle; both pieces, the porcine basin and the grinding tool (the tejolote) are crafted from volcanic rock. You apply the tejolote to the ingredients (spices or vegetables) with a pressing and twisting action which results in a texture that’s considerably different from what you’d get with a spice grinder or a food processor; that method in turn affects the flavor.


And you’ve no doubt witnessed it being pressed into service (no pun intended) when preparing and serving guacamole and the like in Mexican restaurants. I use mine primarily for its unique grinding capability and less frequently for presentation – after all, it’s not called a guacamolcajete – but sometimes this three-legged stone piggie likes to dress for the occasion.


“Ready for my closeup E.J.” (She’s something of a diva: she’s the prettiest I’ve ever seen – and she knows it.)
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Taco Tuesday (Not)

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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Do you get pandemically induced food cravings too or am I alone in this? For no apparent reason I was jonesing for fish tacos and it wasn’t even the officially sanctioned el martes. Besides, it gave me an excuse to break out the comal and make salsa cruda.

Here’s what I did to scratch the itch. There’s nothing auténtico about these, but they were a cinch to prepare. You can use any neutral white filet like tilapia or basa because there’s so much going on in this application that any richly flavorful fish would get lost in the sauce. Literally. I tend to think of tilapia and other entry-level fish as an artist’s canvas: it’s essentially an uninteresting blank medium waiting to be turned into a masterpiece. Or in this case, dinner.

Season (or even marinate) the fish, then bake, grill, or pan sear in a skillet (that’s what I did: easier cleanup), cut into chunks and carefully place them into the taco shell or tortilla of your choice, along with avocado, shredded lettuce (or not), shredded or crumbled cheese (or not), crema (or not), and let the salsa do the heavy flavor lifting.


The salsa cruda started by charring white onion, tomatillos, tomato, and jalapeño on a comal – shown here mid-blister. Previously, I had used it to quickly toast some dried ancho and chipotle chilies then let them soak until rehydrated. When all the chilies are ready, remove any excess seeds and lose the juice from the tomato (it’ll make more). I chopped it all by hand because a blender or food processor creates a thin salsa which is fine but I prefer some crunch. (A molcajete works well too – see my upcoming post about guacamole, another craving inspired by this dish.) I included chopped cilantro, garlic, lime juice, olive oil, salt, and a pinch of cumin and Mexican oregano.


The finished product.

Itch scratched. Except for the aforementioned guacamole. Stay tuned.
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Girasol Bakery

My cat’s favorite catnip mouse had been missing for over a week. Every night, Mercury (he answers to Murky) would select that one particular, very special mouse from his box of about twenty, deposit it just outside the bedroom door, and meow vociferously until I, in grateful appreciation of his gift, emerge to retrieve it and offer a kitty treat in exchange. Every Single Night. But now, that mouse was gone, and clearly, since Murky had been failing to keep his nightly appointment, there would be no substitute. I missed his bedtime visit just as he missed that mouse.

Well obviously, given the circumstances, there was only one thing I could do: scope out every pet shop within a four mile radius of my apartment until I could track down an identical replacement. By the end of that afternoon I was ready to give up. Only one store remained on my list but miraculously, there was one such mouse in stock – the last one they had.

Triumphant, I started for home, but a few storefronts away I spotted Girasol Bakery at 690 5th Avenue in Brooklyn’s South Slope neighborhood. Being on a diet (thanks a lot, COVID), I’ve been scrupulously avoiding bakeries, “but it can’t hurt to just peek in,” I thought. Famous Last Thoughts.

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I’m a fan of bread pudding even though some versions can be a little dry, practically begging to be paired in a duet with drizzle of sauce. But this one was so moist, so luscious looking, it was undoubtedly a soloist. I caved.


Its display case neighbor was the archetypal Mexican dessert, chocoflan, aka “impossible cake”. A dark layer of chocolate cake oozing richness topped with a golden layer of creamy flan (they separate during the baking process, hence the nickname) proved irresistible, so okay, one piece, please. They’ll keep; I don’t have to eat them both at once.


Another case nearby flaunted tempting tres leches cake, that transcendent dessert drenched in three kinds of milk (sweetened condensed, evaporated, and heavy cream). Makes you wonder if you should consume it with a fork or a spoon. Or perhaps a straw. The trio should last for three days at least, longer if I divvy them up.

I arrived home with my treats and Murky’s new BFF. As I was enjoying a prudently tiny taste of each of the three goodies, he brought me his new mouse and laid it at my feet – as if to say, “Thank you.” Awww, Murky!

But then, one prudently tiny taste later, he brought me his old mouse and laid it at my feet – as if to say, “Psych!”

Damn. The ignominy of being outfoxed by a cat. Well obviously, given the circumstances, there was only one thing I could do: polish off the rest of the people treats in stark exasperation then and there. Diet? What diet?
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Dia de los Muertos

(Originally posted on October 31, 2019. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some businesses may be closed – temporarily, we hope – and prices may vary.)

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You’ve heard it before: “Oh, Día de los Muertos is Mexican Halloween, right?”

Wrong. Día de los Muertos is decidedly not Mexican Halloween any more than Chanukah is Jewish Christmas and if any unenlightened soul tries to tell you that, please disabuse them of that fallacious notion inmediatamente!

The Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead, is celebrated from October 31 through November 2 – and “celebrated” is the proper word: families congregate to memorialize loved ones who have passed away, but it is seen as a time when the departed temporarily revivify and join in the revelry rather than as a sorrowful occasion. Additionally, these days Día de Muertos, as it is also known, serves as a paean to the indigenous people with whom it originated in pre-Hispanic times.

So I headed out to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to get myself into the Día de los Muertos spirit. Sequin-eyed, neon icing-coiffed calaveras (sugar skulls) are relatively easy to find in the neighborhood; this one came from Panadería La Espiga Real, 5717 5th Avenue. Although spirits don’t eat, this one seemed particularly interested in the pan de muerto I picked up at La Flor de Izucar, 4021 5th Avenue.

This bread of the dead is customarily embossed with bone shapes, sometimes crossbones, sometimes in a circle, and other traditional embellishments such as skulls and a single teardrop. It’s a barely sweet, simple bun (like so many Mexican panes dulces), light and airy with a tight crumb, and topped with sesame seeds or sugar (like this one) with hints of cinnamon, anise, and orange flower water.


Above: A view of the inner sanctum.